Here’s a pastoral transition with challenges galore. How does a pastor adapt when she moves from associate pastor to solo pastor?
Dear Matriarchs ~~
Have you ever made the leap from preaching once a month (as an associate) to preaching every week? Holy cow, what an adjustment! Tell me everything you know! Seriously, what best practices can you offer for weekly preaching? How do you adjust for the unexpected things that come up? What other advice do you have for an associate pastor who is now a solo pastor?
Rev. Newly Solo
There are ways, dear Rev, and our matriarchs have many ideas. Indeed, they have offered up a master class in developing a good preaching life.
Dear Newly Solo,
In between solo calls, I served as an Interim Associate Pastor, which meant some significant re-entry when my job description shifted back to preaching every week. A few of the things that helped me develop a routine as a weekly preacher were:
1) Take a day to look ahead at the whole coming season, whether following a lectionary or considering a sermon series. I read through the texts, highlighting the ones I thought I would want to focus on, and even assigning tentative sermon titles to create a reminder of how the texts struck me on first reading.
2) On a weekly basis, start whatever is your first day of the week by reading the texts for the coming Sunday. Let your thoughts percolate.
3) Ask yourself, early in the week, what would I say about these texts if I had to talk about them for ten minutes right now? You don’t have to land on the perfect interpretation, but you’ve given yourself something to think about. I often did something like this while working on liturgy.
4) If possible, join or start a colleague group where you meet weekly to talk about the texts. I used to do this in person, but in this pandemic time, you might be able to form a Zoom group, with no geographic limitations.
5) Consider your preaching preparation to be a spiritual practice and weave it through the week.
Blessings as you enter a new ministry!
Terri Cole Pilarski
Hi, yes! I made this adjustment some time ago, but I still recall how intense, immense, exciting, and intimidating it felt. At least to me. I found that I needed to start early in the week, to read the readings and begin to mull over what stood out for me and how it might connect with the congregation. Then I did the exegesis to gain the scholarly perspective and insight. By giving myself a little time early in the week and then building on it over the week I was able to spend time on the readings, and be available for everything else that came up. I have found over time, especially with COVID and online worship, that I preach shorter sermons, really short. I am to make one key point, or highlight one key theme in the readings and how that connects to life today. And sometimes I invite the congregation into a dialogue that I facilitate. This is particularly helpful when I am getting tired of just my voice, which happens when I preach week after week, year after year….but also because I like to encourage the congregation to hear the readings for themselves and build on their capacity to engage and reflect on them. I have also found it helpful to have a group of people to do some sermon prep with.
I agree with the guidance already shared from my colleagues. I would add these ideas:
A) If you can arrange a Bible study with some of your parishioners early in the week that studies the texts upcoming (I have mine Tuesday mornings) it will help you deepen your insight and give you an idea what interests at least a few of your folks.
B) If you are following a lectionary and get to choose the text to focus on, go with the one that interests you–listen for the what I think of as the “inner hook.” It’s hard to be interesting if you yourself are bored or “meh”.
C) As soon as you can, begin to develop a tradition of lay preaching in your congregation so that it’s not always you on deck. Advantages: Other voices heard; you get a break; lay people gain insight into the hours of work it takes to develop a good sermon.
D) Plan ahead seasonally (very helpful in the long run!) but feel free to drop or change the plan if need be at the 11th hour. Appreciative people are gracious and adaptable.
Camille LeBron Powell
I made the switch to solo after 11 years as one of 3 associates so my preaching was even less-frequent than monthly. I am a big planner. I like to sketch out 3-4 months of texts/series/seasons/themes at a time. This helps me with arcs and focus. It also helps with coordinating with my other part-time music staff. I ordinarily have 4 sermons in progress at a time. I need the passages floating around in the back of my head for a while before I can write & then I work my way through sermon prep. Before I “leave” the office on Fridays I like to have an outline ready for the following week’s sermon. Then I write a SFD* (Anne Lamott) on Tuesday. I can come back Thursday or Friday and refine it. This also gives me plenty of time to work on liturgy & anything else out of the ordinary for worship. I found that this pattern works around knowing when my energy and concentration will be best for focusing/writing. This schedule means I can quickly look at my to do list to shift when something unexpected comes up. Planning ahead helps me assess what things I can put down or hand off and which things are mine to do. I know some folks think this is crazy, but it works for me. It even got me through 2017 when I had 10 funerals in 14 weeks.
Of course this pandemic has thrown me for a loop and right now the sermon writing/preaching process may be the most normal thing in my work life.
* Google “Anne LaMott SFD” if you don’t already know.
After my internship year, I have always served as a solo. Sundays just keep coming. I echo what my friends have said. Additionally, I would encourage you to spread out your resources- decide which podcasts, websites, commentaries, and other resources are the most useful to you. Engage the most helpful ones earlier in the week. I like to let the Working Preacher podcast roll around in my head for several days while I doing other things. Additionally, I exhort you not to let the children’s message or whatever that might be called in your context become an afterthought. Intentional engagement with texts or festivals with a different learning style in mind can serve as the springboard for deeper ideas. Check out worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com. Lastly, nothing depends on one sermon. When you’re preaching every week, you’ve got time. One point is enough. Two if they’re complementary and both really good. Let enough be as good as a feast.
Kathryn Zucker Johnston
Looks like you’ve got it covered! I won’t duplicate, but I would like to highlight – it’s okay to not be writing until Saturday (whether that’s the set rhythm, or forced by schedule), it’s not okay to be reading the text for the first time on Saturday. This isn’t to say that won’t ever happen, it is to say you should do all that you can so that it doesn’t become a habit.
The only thing I would add is that I found it helpful to read the following Sundays texts before I even left church on Sunday. It became my routine so the thoughts began to simmer even before I did the exegetical work.
There’s not much if anything to add to all this good advice. One thing though that I have found is that conversations with your musician can be really helpful. For my current setting, the Director of Music and I each bring thoughts to the table (usually emails nowadays.) Her ideas may inform what I think is “the point” for the week or may solidify the direction I have chosen. As we work together, all of the layers of music, liturgy, art and setting help me arrive at my Saturday writing time with an intention and an idea.
Sharon Mack Temple
So much good advice here! My contribution:
About those “unexpected things that come up”: Yes, they will. And not all of them are created equal. Figure out right now what you will (and will not) allow to invade your week so much that your preaching prep time is disrupted. If you find “interruptions messed me up” to be a regular occurrence, rethink your schedule, your boundaries, and your priorities. In my experience, this was a regular adjustment.
And, when you have used the time available, be OK with that which God has given you, polish it up a little, and preach confidently that the Spirit will use that word in wonderful ways. You’ve got this, Solo Rev!
Thank you, Matriarchs! Seasoned weekly preachers found some good ideas in there, too.
Dear reader, add your own ideas in the comments below. And, if you are facing your own ministry challenge, our matriarchs will come through for you, too. Email us at askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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